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2021 Aston Martin DBX first drive review: Risky business

Sports car maker Aston Martin finally joins the luxury SUV space. Is the new DBX worth the risk?

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A big SUV on a track? Well, it is an Aston Martin, after all.

Aston Martin

It's a risk, no doubt about it. It's a risk that paid off (and continues to do so) for Porsche with the Cayenne, but that doesn't mean it will for Aston Martin. It didn't feel quite like such an ideological leap for Bentley or Rolls-Royce to produce an SUV. Lamborghini? More so (LM002 aside), but the Italian company could rely on the MLB Evo underpinnings of its Volkswagen Group siblings. Not such a risk.

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Sports car maker Aston Martin, however, has decided to create its own, entirely new SUV platform. Risk. There's also an uneasy feeling that it might be turning up to the SUV party just as the DJ is winding down the last track before the house lights come up. Let's hope not. Firstly because Aston has done a decent job of producing a luxury SUV to compete with the Bentayga and Urus. Secondly because Aston's future probably rather depends on the new DBX being a commercial success.

Walking up to a DBX is a slightly hall of mirrors experience. You know that it's a huge vehicle (longer and wider than a Range Rover) but from some angles it looks no bigger than a Porsche Macan. It's a clever trick of the car's design. I'm not such a fan of the rear of the car with its Vantage lights grafted a little awkwardly to the big boot, but I think the sculptural overall appearance of it is striking and more athletic than most SUVs.

Before I get to the driver's seat I suggest you pop open one of the rear doors and have a sit in the second row. Why? Because I think it is one of the DBX's main selling points. We all know that customers in certain markets prefer to be driven rather than drive, and I think they'll be very happy with the surroundings they find themselves in. A wheelbase of over 10 feet combined with notably slim front seats developed from those found in the DB11 leads to positively palatial leg room. What's more, the standard panoramic roof gives a lovely light-and-airy feel to the second row, despite being set relatively low to allow the exterior roofline to sweep down. The materials throughout the cabin are all first class, too, and definitely give a luxury feel.

Now to the driver's seat. And where to go first? Well, for me it's an off-road course. Not the most vicious course I've ever driven, but in the DBX's Terrain Plus mode the steep, loose-surface ascents and descents are brushed aside with ease. A tight, muddy trail through some woods with deeply rutted tracks is also no problem. If anything, I'd like a slightly less responsive throttle at the top of its travel for this sort of work, but that's a nitpick rather than a big issue. Essentially, you can be confident that when you go shooting or to a point-to-point on the weekend and everyone parks in a muddy field, you'll be able to extricate yourself without embarrassment. Probably best to spec the all-season tires, though.

Next up for the DBX is the other extreme: a trip round the Stowe circuit at Silverstone. This fairly tight little track is what Aston Martin uses for a lot of its dynamic development, and while I don't expect to see many DBXes in pit lanes, it's nonetheless fun to see what it can do with the shackles off. Winding the drive mode all the way down to the other end of the air suspension's spectrum in Sport Plus, the most impressive thing around the track is how flat and controlled the 48-volt anti-roll system keeps the car. The quick steering seems to have the front brakes activating quite a lot on the way into corners, I think mostly through the torque-vectoring-via-brake system rather than the stability control. On the way out of corners, the DBX certainly feels very rear-biased in its torque distribution.

Between the corners, the twin-turbo V8's 542 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque are ample, propelling the DBX's 4,950 pounds with plenty of pace. The only thing I find slightly disappointing is the nine-speed automatic gearbox. The big, theatrical aluminum paddles are nice to use, but the 'box doesn't respond as quickly or smoothly to downshift requests as I'd like.

The cabin is awash with fine leather, but the onboard tech is last-gen Mercedes stuff.

Aston Martin

The other facet that the circuit draws instant attention to is the sound of the DBX. There's an argument that Aston should be offering a hybrid power train in order to be up to date with trends, but once you've heard the noise from the M177 engine, it's hard not to be wooed by its aural charms. It has a slightly higher tone than in its Mercedes-AMG applications, but the essential character is unmistakable, which is a very good thing indeed.

However, as interesting as it is to drive it in extreme environments, the biggest test really begins as I drive out onto the public roads to live with the DBX for 24 hours. Everyday situations are where this sort of vehicle must triumph. First impressions on the highway are very good. There's a pleasingly long-limbed feel to the air suspension, and the quelling of noise, vibration and harshness is excellent, resulting in a quietly cosseting environment. It feels like a relaxing place to pass miles. With Apple CarPlay, plenty of storage both in the door bins and under the attractive floating center console, it feels like a very usable car, too. The tech is last-generation Mercedes stuff, though, so the central display isn't a touchscreen, despite being placed in such a way that it looks like it should be.

Around town, the DBX feels a bit like it looks; big but also quite wieldy. The relatively quick steering and the supportive anti-roll system are what give the feeling that it's easy to maneuver, while the 360-degree camera system means it isn't too intimidating to park. Nonetheless, if you find yourself in narrow backstreets with some haphazard on-street parking, then there's no disguising the massive size of the DBX, and you'll probably wish you were sitting in the back.

On road or off road, the DBX is delightful.

Aston Martin

And what about when you reach the sort of roads that are a Vantage's happy hunting ground? Well, again, the DBX is an intriguing mix. In a straight line it feels like it has the pliant primary ride of a Range Rover, although the secondary ride quality is a little busier, with more vibrational feedback through seat and steering. But as soon as you deviate from the straight-ahead it gains a surprising agility. The way that it turns in quickly, despite not having rear-wheel steering, and then drives through a corner with a distinct rear bias, even pushing the tail wide a little if you're really aggressive with the throttle, means it has an agility and nimbleness that reminds me more of an Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio. It's a really pleasing blend.

Overall, I think Aston Martin has done a good job of creating a luxury SUV that also has just enough vim about its handling and bombast in its soundtrack to make it worthy of the winged badge. At $179,986 (including $3,086 for destination) in the US it's undoubtedly expensive, but I do think it's interesting enough to tempt some people away from the more solid, stately charms of a Bentley Bentayga and the brasher bent of a Urus. Whether it will attract enough people to be deemed a success and therefore a risk that was worth taking, however, only time will tell.